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Leah Berenson
Leah Berenson
December 15, 2023 ·  4 min read

What is High-Functioning Alcoholism?

Severe addiction is a disease that takes over people’s minds and bodies. Yet, some people are still seemingly completely normal under the influence of certain substances. For example, people with high-functioning alcoholism are well-known for their ability to live a seemingly normal life despite their addiction. The problem with this form of alcoholism is that people often don’t see its signs.

What is High-Functioning Alcoholism?

First, to better understand high-functioning alcoholism, it’s important to know what that means. Simply put, “it’s a person who is dependent upon alcohol but can still function in society.” However, it’s a little more complicated than that. According to the American Addiction Centers, alcoholism “is a treatable chronic medical disorder” and “causes long-term changes in the brain.” Therefore, someone who seemingly has no problem functioning in society may actually have severe personality changes that take place over time. It is also not necessarily something that can easily be given up. Actually, in many cases, clinical intervention may be necessary.

Differences Between Alcoholism and High-Functioning Alcoholism

There is a difference between an alcoholic and someone who is a high-functioning alcoholic. Alcoholics are generally people who drink often for several reasons that eventually can become high-functioning alcoholism. Frequent use of the substance over time can cause severe cravings as well as a higher tolerance to the effects. They’re more prone to experience withdrawal and, in most cases, can conduct themselves with a sense of normalcy, maintaining jobs, friendships, and families.

Health Risks of the Disease

Next, it’s good to know how high-functioning alcoholism impacts the body. The health risks associated with alcoholism are fairly well-known and don’t differ much for high-functioning alcoholism. Except for the fact that the health risks increase in severity, are generally higher, and cause more, and in some cases, irreversible damage. Commonly known risks include damage to the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. As well as an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure. Moreover, it can cause fatalities like car accidents and accidental drowning.

Sadly, it can also have a major and negative impact on mental health. Not only can it cause depression or anxiety, but it also changes a person over time. Their priorities change, how they treat and interact with others, etc. As a result, many of their relationships become strained over time, causing isolation and further mental health problems.

Read: What Happens To Your Body When You Quit Alcohol For 30 Days?

Common Behaviors and Warning Signs

Although a medical professional will have to make a diagnosis, some warning signs may be able to shed light on the possibility of whether or not someone has high-functioning alcoholism. Generally, the first sign, and is true of many behaviors that often result in a problem, is avoidance. High-functioning alcoholics are often in denial and will do everything they can to make excuses for behaviors or avoid the conversation altogether. In extreme cases, they become angry and violent, and they are often dishonest about the frequency or amount of alcohol they intake.

To know if someone has developed high-functioning alcoholism, there are a few differences in the signs. For example, someone who blackouts after consumption often versus someone who accidentally had a few too many and doesn’t remember much of the night. Another sign of high-functioning alcoholism is someone who generally maintains an overall good sense of hygiene. They’re well groomed, and their living space, cars, and offices are reasonably well maintained. In contrast, some high-functioning alcoholics will not be able to keep up with these tasks and other aspects of everyday life without having alcohol first.

Moreover, someone who drinks at inopportune times, like when it’s not allowed on premises, in the middle of the day, or deliberately before driving or operating heavy machinery. Another sign that someone may have high-functioning alcoholism is apparent in their method of celebration or relaxation, always opting to do so with a drink. Their tolerance is usually high as they can drink large amounts and not appear intoxicated.

Treatment and Support

Fortunately, there are plenty of treatment options and support in place for people struggling with high-functioning alcoholism and their loved ones. The best way to approach the situation is head-on and directly address the problem, discuss possible solutions, and communicate how their high-functioning alcoholism affects you or your family. However, it’s important to do so in a loving and non-judgmental way when the person is ready to address their own disease.

There are countless resources and treatment options for someone dealing with high-functioning alcoholism. These include but are not limited to, detoxification, inpatient or outpatient treatment, therapy, support groups, and medications such as acamprosate and disulfiram.

Losing a loved one or relationship to alcoholism of any kind is never an easy thing to deal with. It’s helpful to understand the condition better to have a positive impact and possibly save the relationship—or someone’s life.

Keep Reading: Why Do People Get ‘Red Wine Headaches’? (It’s Not the Alcohol)


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